Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

Women guarding men

Part of the reason the Baltimore City Detention Center corruption scandal has gotten so much attention is the salaciousness of the allegations. The inmate charged as the kingpin of the corruption ring is accused of impregnating no fewer than four correctional officers, leading many to question whether it's wise that such a high proportion of guards in Maryland's men's prisons are women. But gender and sex are red herrings. Prison inmates are often skilled manipulators who will use any tool they can find — sex or whatever else — to get their way. The answer is not to have fewer women guarding our prisons but to have more and better training for all guards, regardless of gender.

Nearly two-thirds of the guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center are women. That Tavon White, allegedly a leader of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, compromised four female guards to the point that they were willing to bear his babies is an extreme example of how skilled some prisoners become at manipulating their captors, but manipulation itself is not unusual. In prison, inmates learn to exploit weaknesses that might give them an advantage in the social hierarchy. They have lots of time and little to lose if their schemes fail. It's small wonder they become expert at gaming the system.

That's why the root of the problem isn't gender but rather the potential for inmates to create situations in which they gain control over the people who are supposed to be controlling them. And though corruption in Maryland prisons is a continuing problem, much of it occurs on a more mundane level than the misconduct alleged in Baltimore. It can start with what may appear as an innocent desire for friendship or requests for a personal favor that contravenes the rules. From there it can proceed to ever more inappropriate acts until the corrections officer finds himself or herself entangled in a web of emotional or financial obligations that fatally compromise his or her professional integrity. Gary Maynard, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, tells a story about how he, as a young prison guard in Oklahoma, was almost taken in by a calculating inmate asking for a seemingly innocent favor. Sex had nothing to do with it.

The defense against such coercion is better training and support for those who work with inmates, and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has taken some steps in that direction. In 2012, it revamped and expanded its training program for new corrections officers. Recruits in the 35-day program undergo intensive training focused on teaching them how to avoid fraternizing with inmates in ways that could expose them to manipulation and corruption by those under their charge. The trainees engage in role-playing exercises designed to illustrate how easily errors in judgment regarding relationships with inmates not only can jeopardize their physical safety but also undermine their authority.

More thorough and realistic training, coupled with beefed-up security procedures, better record-keeping and stricter background checks for potential recruits are the key to preventing scandals like the one at the Baltimore City jail. Those steps are far more relevant to the problem of corruption at Maryland prisons than the gender of the guards. As The Sun's Alison Knezevich reported on Sunday, women make up an increasing proportion of correctional officers in Maryland, and despite the challenges they face in handling male inmates, the state has come to depend on them, especially in urban areas like Baltimore where more women than men can pass background checks because they are less likely to have criminal records. Such women are attracted to corrections work because the pay is steady and the benefits for state employees are often better than for those in the private sector. Restricting them to working in women's facilities would be impractical and unfair, since 93 percent of prisoners are men.

The solution to corruption at the city jail isn't to limit the number of female guards out of a misguided fear that they may fall victim to manipulative inmates. Women who work in corrections are no more inherently vulnerable to corruption than men in similar jobs, and the behavior of a handful of allegedly compromised female guards at the Baltimore City jail shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the character of women correctional officers in general.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading